Modern Times

In 2010, a 94-year old Frenchman named Stephane Hessel wrote a short essay entitled Indignez-vous. The veteran of the French Resistance, tortured in a concentration camp in Dora before he escaped during a transfer to Bergen-Belsen, asserted in the essay that indignation is a precious motive that must be expressed. Whilst the sources of concern may not be as evident in France today as it was in during the Nazi occupation, Hessel wrote, there remains much to be indignant about. He challenged French citizens not to passively accept the direction modern society is taking but to express their outrage. Indifference is the worst of all attitudes.

In his outstanding essay, Hessel described the National Council of the Resistance’s proposed platform for France. This platform, subsequently adopted, was an ensemble of values and principles its authors hoped to apply to a modern French democracy once liberated from German occupation. He asserted that France needs those same principles and values today more than ever. What is at stake in Australia is no less important. The accumulated efforts of several generations to build an open, egalitarian and democratic society from balanced, informed debate and evidence-based policy are in the balance. 

Expressions of indignation are becoming increasingly common in Australia but, strangely, it has become apparent over the previous year that in Australia conservatives hold a monopoly on indignation. Conservative perspectives have been championed at organised rallies against carbon pricing or through the ‘convoy of no confidence’. They dominate the print media, talkback radio and to a large extent cyber space with fervent attacks on taxation, ‘disputed’ climate science, weak border control policies and cost of living issues. As conservative indignation has become increasingly noticeable, progressive-minded Australians appear to have quietly retreated into the background.

This tendency could be explained by the disempowered many people feel at the current minority government. Collective manifestations of indignation during the Arab Spring and in Occupy Movements in Madrid (where the protesters were called Los Indignados after the title of Hessel’s essay), London and New York were each motivated by disapproval of politico-economic systems that the majority felt helpless to influence. Similarly, discontent has grown in Australia because many believe that the few independents and unique Greens MP elected to the House of Representatives enjoy a disproportionate political influence that does not accurately reflect the voice of the people. 

That these understandable (given our modest experience with minority governments) concerns exist is no reason for Australian progressives to passively form a queue at the slaughterhouse. Any number of issues that have developed over the course of the last 12 months could have had an incendiary effect to alight the indignation of both the cultural and industrial left. Indeed, many of these issues should have piqued the concern of any Australian interested in the state of our society today as well as the legacy we will bestow future generations. Absent from the political landscape over the last year are public manifestations of outrage over the degradation of the environment, soaring inequality, the demonization of asylum seekers and a growing cultural poverty. Distaste expressed over the nature of political discourse which denies the place of science, rationality and evidence-based debate is muted or inexistent.  

Australians should be outraged that the scientific foundation of climate change has been repudiated by a large number of opportunistic elected representatives, and that their actions have been widely justified in the media. The residual impact of the carbon pricing debate will stalk Australian politics long after the current Government’s term. To dismiss science and other forms of empirical evidence as an irrelevance is to replace our philosophical and intellectual heritage, hard-won during the Enlightenment, with a shallow ideology that sees individual freedom and common good as mutually exclusive, particularly if said common good is to be achieved through taxation or regulation of any colour. 

In his essay, Hessel refers to Sartre, the French philosopher who argued so powerfully for personal freedom that many of his contemporaries believed that a full embrace of his beliefs would result in anarchic selfishness.  Hessel correctly points out, however, that Sartre stressed that individual freedom encourages responsibility. Because we are free, we have a responsibility to act, for the benefit of the world around us. Our individual freedom also brings the responsibility to fight for the collective good and for the wellbeing of future generations by voicing our concerns, outrage and indignation. 

It would be easy to feel that expressions of progressive indignation are incapable of stimulating change. Australia has shifted powerfully to the right since the late 1990s and even when the public rally around a progressive issue, such as banning Live Exports, our elected representatives have responded only by seeking the middle ground. True indignation, born of concern for the direction our society is taking, cannot be tempered by a politics that for the moment is not the contest for values it was intended to be. Engagement may begin with the social media or public rallies but it will eventually be crucial for progressives to do more than maintain the rage – they will need to mainstream it. 

Complete and relentless engagement has the power to return politics to its intended purpose. Conservative minded Australians, whipped into a state of frenzy, have found their voice, but there is no game unless two sides take the field. It is time for progressives to express their outrage in order to drive stronger engagement, and to demand change.